Exec's First Year Atop Freestanding Label Yields a Crop of Hits

It’s been just over a year since the reorganization of UMGs East Coast labels that uncoupled Island Def Jam and placed David Massey atop the freestanding Island. In that time, he and his team have seen the combination of his A&R and marketing savvy and the unparalleled promo chops of distributing label Republic produce stellar results. (Indeed, apart from Republic itself, Island is the only UMG owned-and-operated label in the Republic-distribbed family.)

 Massey and Tove Lo

Perhaps most impressively, Massey has achieved the lion’s share of his recent successes with new artists. His freshly announced joint venture with Safehouse, meanwhile, presents a big new platform for Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas (and leverages some Disney pixie dust). 

The British veteran of the U.S. biz began his career in the early ’80s as an artist man­ager for Wang Chung, among others, and launched his own indie label/pubco, Big World, before joining Epic as A&R VP in 1991 at the behest of Tommy Mot­tola and Michele Anthony. He remained in the Sony system (ultimately as the group’s EVP of A&R) until 2007, when UMG tapped him to head Mercury under L.A. Reid’s IDJMG umbrella. He took the leadership of Island in 2013; things have gotten sunnier ever since. Even so, by the end of this conversation, Massey probably wished he could vote us off the Island. 

When we last spoke you said you envisioned the new Island as a large boutique label.
I feel like it’s coming. A large bou­tique label is what it’s become.

Nick Jonas has been a huge breakthrough.
I had a little bit of inside infor­mation, because I signed him when he was a 10-year-old Christian artist and developed The Jonas Brothers from that initial signing. I knew he had this very soulful voice from way back then and what he was capable of. Our relationship had kept up over the years, so when the brothers decided to separate, my first call that morning was to Nick, to see if we could reignite what we started 10 years before. We both had this vision about the music: soulful, modern, with a rhythmic tinge. Nick’s musical tastes had evolved and he was influenced by Frank Ocean and Drake, and it was very exciting to see it grow the way it did. The first person I played it for was Lenny Beer.

Massey with Nick Jonas and our own Todd Hensley 

It’s noteworthy that you’ve seen success­ful follow-up singles from Nick, Tove Lo and Fall Out Boy.
That’s the exciting thing, getting second hits; you always want to make sure you’re consolidating with your second single. That’s also a testament to Charlie Walk and his team, who are pulling out both singles in a powerful way. Nick is really having a major second act—he’s the quintessential triple threat. A writer, singer and actor/performer. He really is all those things, and his drive and commitment—I don’t know anyone with his level of commitment, and he’s so young.

I’m really impressed that Tove’s “Talk­ing Body” is Top 5 at Top 40 right now, and that Nick’s “Chains” is where it is. The fact that they and Fall Out Boy are having bona fide follow-up hits is crucial to our plan for the year, the way we’re trying to build up the artists. I’m very excited about the long-term prospects of all our new signings. Shawn, Tove, Nick, American Authors—they weren’t even signed 18 months ago!

Eric Wong, Shawn Mendes, Massey and Lauren Schneider 

Shawn Mendes scoring a #1 album was also a big breakthrough.
It was very meaningful for Island to drive to a #1 album without relying on radio, which is one of the things we have our hearts set on—although radio has been incredibly supportive. We’ve been blessed in that area.

Our dream scenario with Shawn was to real­ly develop his base and direct fan engage­ment and let the music speak in terms—we could get him to #1 just based on true fan base, and then go to radio on the day the #1 was announced. That did come to pass. Now Charlie Walk’s team is running with “Stitches,” and it really feels as if this record is getting traction. We’re charting at Top 40 with major stations on board, and the single’s already at 125k sold and it’s Shaza­ming—it’s doing everything it’s supposed to do. We were able to get past any “teen” preconceptions about Shawn in terms of the music, a legitimate #1 album and being on tour with Taylor Swift. That’s been a real labor of love and a proper achievement for us; if “Stitches” continues to grow, I’m really excited to see where it can go.

People don’t yet understand the power of his fan base; it is remarkable and sizable. And I think with Taylor he’s going to win a whole bunch of new fans. If you see him live, it’s just him and his guitar, and he car­ries it outstandingly. We only signed him in June, and his socials and ticket sales are through the roof. He sold 28k tickets in 90 seconds, before he’d even been on the radio. I’ve got very high hopes for him.

Phil McIntyre, Nick Jonas, Massey and Demi Lovato

You also recently concluded the Safe­house joint venture with Phil McIntyre and Hollywood.
I think this is a really important deal for Island. Phil has been a great partner on Nick Jonas, and there’s a real musical con­nection between me and Demi Lovato; the trust between us has enabled us to make this deal. I think this is going to be huge—Demi’s music is going to absolutely blow people away. It’s another level, and she has a truly a global situation. This deal is really organic. I’ve known Phil for 10 years, because I’ve known Nick that long. His team is one of the best we deal with. I know it’s going to be a home run for both of us. And now that Demi’s music is beginning to come together, I couldn’t be more excited. We hope there will be a single in late summer.

It’s also really nice to have a working partnership with Hollywood. They’re great people; Ken Bunt is an incredible execu­tive and I’ve known Mio Vukovic since we both started in the business. It’s really fun be working with Mio, and the Demi album is going to be incredible. It’s an unusual, true collaboration between two majors. It’s already working really well. The Safehouse deal is with Island, but Demi being currently with Hol­lywood, we just jumped in together to do this. And remember, Hollywood also has a deal with Universal for the rest of the world, so there’s that preexisting relationship between Demi and our international affiliates. It’s seamless.

What about some of your forthcoming projects?
We’re very excited about American Authors, who have a very exciting new single called “Go Big or Go Home” that’s going to be the next big push for us. The NBA has already picked it up as a theme for the playoffs. That will go this summer as well.

I’m hugely excited about Mike Posner. He’s made an extraordinary record that’s completely different from what he’s done before, musically. It leans more toward a singer/songwriter direc­tion. It’s going to surprise everyone. I think it’s beautifully crafted and is going to receive some real critical acclaim. That’ll definitely be out this year.

Nova Rockafeller is another one. SiriusXM Hits 1 started it; she played our Island Night at SXSW and in L.A., and now we’re starting the radio plan. We just wanted to develop her base, starting with SiriusXM. That will eventually be a Pop record. She’s a writer, rapper, singer. She could host a TV show; she’s such a character.

We’ve got a great young rock band called Tribe Society. They remind me a little of Imagine Dragons. We also have a great band from Canada called July Talk, who just won a Juno.

There’s a lot in the pipeline.
There is. When I look now at Demi, Nick, Tove, Kiesza, Authors, Shawn and Avicii, it just seems like an incredible cross-section of under-25 artists. I’m very proud of the way the roster is taking shape. Given that we’ve been doing it for a year, I feel like we’ve got a real shape to it now.

Let’s talk about the arrangement with Republic.
It’s so synergistic. They deserve to be the #1 label. Island doesn’t aspire to be big. Our aspira­tions are different, and it works so well because we want to develop artists, and Republic is an incredible, really efficient organization—they love hits and don’t really care where they come from. It’s been a very productive first year because it’s a really complementary arrange­ment. We have to mindful of keeping our pro­portions correct, so we remain nimble and small enough that we can really get every record.

With so many records happening now, how do you space them out in the pipeline for radio?
It’s not that we have so many records—we have three or four going to radio—but because Charlie and his team are doing a very good job, they’re all on the chart. The truth is we’re very focused on a few records, so we haven’t ever felt an overload. It’s also a wider category of genres, so we’re not trying to go to Pop radio with five records. We’re being very strategic as we work on that directly with Charlie and his team.

We share a similar history, Monte, Avery, Charlie and me, and similar taste in music. One of the great things about Charlie is his passion for the artists. He’s not just focused on the superstars; he has a passion for breaking artists. He and his team are very motivated. It’s our job to give them great records with a story, so when they go to radio they’re going in a focused way and they’ve got the right record with the right background. Eric Wong is a brilliant marketer, second to none, and there’s a lot of marketing going on at Island before we go to radio. Lauren Schneider is also a crucial member of my team.

What’s your assessment of the streaming marketplace?
I agree with a lot of what Lucian Grainge has been saying. I’ve had concerns for about a year about freemium and, like a lot of people, I have a problem with the lack of differentiation between free and premium. I believe in streaming but I def­initely feel that what Apple will do could be very influential to how the public settles into acquiring music. Because they can’t be taught that it’s all about free. That’s the road to hell.

I’m very optimistic about streaming but I think we need to give it 18 months. There’s going to be a transition period; it may not be that fast, but I think it will happen, and I’m excited to see how all the arrangements play out over the next several months. Much like cable TV, especially if it’s easy to do and pay for and makes a lot of sense. That’s why 2015 is decisive in how effi­cient that transition is. But I believe in the future so much and think the business will get through the transition successfully. We’re headed into a brave new world, in terms of how music is con­sumed, and it’ll be wider.

I also believe radio is going to be every bit as important as it’s proven to be. I still believe in passive discovery, discovering music because it just comes on. For a label like Island, which is an artist-development label that’s very focused on new artists as well as established ones, we’re very focused on radio and how that discovery process is a game-changer, as with Nick and Tove.

Massey with UMG ruler Lucian Grainge, Island's Eric Wong, Crush Music's Bob McLynn and DCD2/Island's Fall Out Boy 

Say a bit about research tools.
We don’t use it as much from a signing perspec­tive; our signings are pretty organic. But when it comes to reading our records, we’re very detailed. Republic is very supportive and I think we benefit from their sophistication in that area. We try to read early response even before records are played at radio, and get a sense of what we’re dealing with using data, which is both very accessible and undeniable. We’re not talking about callout research—we’re talking about sales and Shazam and all the components we’re all using. That’s helping us to know where to focus and get that right. So we’re very happy with the way that’s worked out in the first year.

Look at Tove Lo: We had that “Hippie Sabo­tage Remix” of “Habits” that got to 5 million Soundcloud plays, and when we released her EP, to our astonishment, that one song sold 30k first week. No one was expecting that from an EP by an unknown artist. The data provided that, but we had to make a decision about which version to focus on at radio. We decided to commit to the original version, which I think was a great deci­sion because it enabled the record to go all the way to #1—it was a fully realized song rather than a remix with partial lyrics. So I feel the informa­tion and the way we’re able to read it is definitely having a positive effect on strategy and decisions.

Music from other territories is also a bigger part of the picture now.
Frequently the success of international acts isn’t in their home countries. We were the only coun­try to go with the only version of “Habits” in the first six months. The international component isn’t predicated on success in the artists’ home countries. As you know from my history, I’ve always been drawn to global talent. I had Oasis more than 20 years ago. The situation now is that, thanks to technology, we are truly global; the barriers have come down even more. So you’ll see much more of that, with Spotify, the streaming iTunes and so on. You’ll find more Nico & Vinzes and artists like Avicii. His star truly rose with Spotify. I got a plaque from 3 bil­lion streams a few months ago.

What is that, like, 48 bucks?
Actually, there is a little money at that point.

Do you have any thoughts on the Global Release Date?
A global release date was inevitable. I don’t think we could’ve gone on much longer without one. The evidence seems to show that Friday is an optimal day in terms of how sales go. There will be teething problems with it, but it’s the right decision and Friday will probably prove to be correct.

Streaming is why it had to happen. Every­one’s accepted that the future lies in a dominant way with streaming. It’s all part of the transition.

We just have to jump in. One thing I think we’re getting better at, as a business, is accept­ing and embracing change without trying to hold it back. But the priority for everyone is fair monetization for streaming. So yes, we accept the evolution but have to make sure we’re a viable business and our artists are taken care of properly. That’s moving toward being the dominant issue. The time we’re taking is worthwhile, because we have to find some­thing we can live with for the next 10 years.

We’re also seeing potential for a longer tail on records, with records being worked not only on the way up but the way down, rather the opening-week mindset exclusively.

I so agree with you. You can already see it, and not just with streaming. Fall Out Boy’s first album has never exited the Top 100. Even someone like Shawn Mendes, with a song like “Something Big,” will continually sell 8-10k on iTunes a week without airplay and be streamed a lot, and we don’t really know why. With Tove, it’s really striking how long her songs last in terms of the continued streaming intensity. That’s where we have to lose that first-week habit.

But having said that, but I do feel the new consumption chart goes a long way toward helping us, because it really lays out the truth about how we’re monetizing our music. And that’s all that matters, in terms of measuring commercial success.

Do you feel there’s enough streaming data?
I do wonder about the video side. It’s still evolving. But it’s a significant move in the right direction, striking a balance between sin­gles and albums and streaming. It was starting to feel like the obsessive focus on the old-fash­ioned album chart was a bit of a distraction, because it was giving an inaccurate picture and could mislead you in terms of marketing steps.

I think this year is when we start to establish the new business. We were surprised, in a way, that iTunes declined last year, significantly, somewhat out of the blue. 10 years ago that was the new model, so we see that’s changing; my sense is that streaming will have a long life. I don’t think iTunes as it stands now will vanish—it’ll be like the physical side.

Would you like to comment on the Bible’s Power 100?
I did notice that there were a lot of agents on the list! Listen, I’m honored to be on it—what can I tell you? 

Whoa (7/14a)
A "Moon" shot. (7/10a)
Is a Best New Artist nom in the cards for acclaimed writer/artist? (7/13a)
The gradual ascent of a gifted, prolific artist. (7/13a)
Baby-faced killer is crushing it. (7/14a)
Would you like some Swiss cheese with your nachos?
Oh, sorry--we were just singing to ourselves.
Family is everything.
Are they coming for Kanye? Yes.

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